“I doubt sometimes whether a quiet and unagitated life would have suited me–yet I sometimes long for it.” — Lord Byron

— And who is the best poet, Heron? asked Boland.
— Lord Tennyson, of course, answered Heron.
— O, yes, Lord Tennyson, said Nash. We have all his poetry at home in a book.
At this Stephen forgot the silent vows he had been making and burst out:
— Tennyson a poet! Why, he’s only a rhymester!
— O, get out! said Heron. Everyone knows that Tennyson is the greatest poet.
— And who do you think is the greatest poet? asked Boland, nudging his neighbour.
— Byron, of course, answered Stephen.

— “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”, James Joyce

It’s his birthday today.

Here is his epitaph to his dog:

One who possessed beauty without vanity,
strength without insolence,
courage without ferocity,
and all the virtues of man,
without his vices.
This praise would be unmeaning flattery if inscribed over human ashes,
is but a just tribute to the memory of my dog.

Lord Byron is an exceedingly interesting person, and, as such, is it not to be regretted that he is a slave to the vilest and most vulgar prejudices, and as mad as a hatter? — Percy Bysshe Shelley, letter to a friend

 
 

Lord Byron (aka George Gordon Lord Byron) bemoaned the state of poetry, thinking his contemporaries did not measure up to what came before. Although he was a thinker and critic, he wasn’t interested in abstract intellectualism. He liked the effects, he was a visceral poet. People had mixed feelings about him (then and now). His legend precedes him. He was a “bad boy”. But a bad boy who could write like this:

She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes:
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.

Byron was like a rock star. He created a cult of personality. Sounds like someone we know.

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Scroll down to the bottom for more along these lines.

Poets still argue about Byron. What exactly was he doing? Was it all smoke and mirrors? Auden referred to him as “odious”. Tennessee Williams was obsessed.

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Byron defines the Romantic tradition. He self-consciously performed himself, aware of his audience. Byron’s actual name is now a symbol for something else: the Byronic figure. Or, more simply, “Byronic”. We know what this means. He “played himself”, an act of egotism prefiguring the 20th century’s individualism. He was the prototype.

Did he create the “Byronic” hero in order to more effectively speak in his own voice? Masks can reveal more than they conceal. Ask any actor. They feel more “real” when “hiding” behind the mask of a character than when being “themselves” at a party.

Byron was born with a a deformed foot, and this disability shaped his character in ways he probably did not understand fully. He was also – most probably, as in 99.99999% probably – bipolar. Listen, takes one to know one. He swung wildly from mood to mood, and was heavily affected by the seasons. His depressions were titanic. He wrote about this with awareness and perception. He was competitive and aggressive. He had a complicated love life.

He slept with women, he slept with men, he slept with his half-sister whom he impregnated. He left lovers behind him in a crazy sprawl across multiple countries. Caroline Lamb, one of his ex-lovers, described him as “Bad, mad and dangerous to know.” Byron married, but left his wife. It was a huge scandal. He befriended the Shelleys and joined them on vacation in Switzerland. He was there the night Mary Shelley came up with the idea for Frankenstein (apparently, it was Byron’s idea that everyone should write a ghost story). He was politically minded, and committed to Greek independence, so much so that he joined the Greek army to fight the Turks. He died in Greece of fever in 1824. 100 years later, he was still so revered that Greece came out with a commemorative Lord Byron stamp.

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One of the most famous portraits of him shows him in traditional Greek dress.

(c) Government Art Collection; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Byron published his first book while in college (and he barely went to classes, spending his time instead gambling, reading, lolling about, taking care of a tame bear”: I have got a new friend, the finest in the world, a tame bear, when I brought him here, they asked me what I meant to do with him, and my reply was ‘he should sit for a Fellowship‘ … This answer delighted them not.”) In 1809 he published “English Bards and Scotch Reviewers”, which crackled like a lightning bolt through the literary world: it is a long (long) poem/screed attacking the sacred gods of poetry at the time – Southey, Wordsworth, Coleridge. He went AFTER them. This is very Byronic: egotistic youth attacking the old fogeys. It’s reminiscent of Dennis Hopper at the time of Easy Rider‘s ascendance, in fringed jacket, hat, beard, wild eyes, walking up to George Cukor and saying, “We’re gonna bury you. You’re finished.” The Byronic figure does not build on the past. The Byronic figure torches it to the ground. “English Bards and Scotch Reviewers” had a similar scorched earth policy. The poem is filled with foot-notes, detailing what he criticizes and why, just in case you missed it.

Shall gentle Coleridge pass unnotic’d here,
To turgid ode and tumid stanza dear?
Though themes of innocence amuse him best,
Yet still obscurity’s a welcome guest.
If Inspiration should her aid refuse
To him who takes a pixey for a muse,
Yet none in lofty numbers can surpass
The bard who soars to elegize an ass.
So well the subject suits his noble mind,
He brays the laureat of the long-ear’d kind.

Byron was not PLAYING.

In 1812, he published another long (long) narrative poem, still anthologized, “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.” The poem made him famous overnight. It’s autobiography as Narrative Performance Art. It tells the story of “Harold,” a chronically restless young man searching for … something … in foreign countries. Byron had traveled extensively, through the Mediterranean, hopping among the islands in the Aegean, through Portugal, the Balkans, Albania (there’s still a commemorative wall-plaque for him in Albania). The 1813 portrait at the top of this post (done by Thomas Phillips) shows Byron in dashing Albanian dress. Byron and his generation, the Romantics, were similar to the Modernists, who attempted to express the fragmentation/destruction of Europe post-WWI. The Romantics were also war-weary, coming, as they did, out of a time of Revolutionary upheaval. They had HAD it. “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” is a pure expression of what would eventually be known as the Romantic sensibility. The poem was an opening salvo and created a thousand imitators.

Here are some of my favorite lines of “Childe Harold”:

Even with its own desiring phantasy,
And to a thought such shape and image given,
As haunts the unquenched soul–parched–wearied–wrung–and riven.

How very … Byronic.

Then this:

Who loves, raves–’tis youth’s frenzy.

Or:

And Circumstance, that unspiritual god
And miscreator, makes and helps along
Our coming evils with a crutch-like rod,
Whose touch turns Hope to dust,–the dust we all have trod.

So good! Or:

Our life is a false nature–’tis not in
The harmony of things.

I feel this. I know this.

His torment is always close.

But I have lived, and have not lived in vain:
My mind may lose its force, my blood its fire,
And my frame perish even in conquering pain;
But there is that within me which shall tire
Torture and Time, and breathe when I expire;
Something unearthly which they deem not of,
Like the remembered tone of a mute lyre,
Shall on their softened spirits sink, and move
In hearts all rocky now the late remorse of love.

You can see why it struck a chord, especially among young people. (His epitaph is taken from that stanza.)

Embedded within “Childe Harold” is a rallying Romantic cry:

I love not Man the less, but Nature more.

Coming in the midst of the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, this attitude was seen as a HUGE threat. It was a reaction to all that REASON in the air.

Sudden high-flung gorgeousness:

Roll on, thou deep and dark blue Ocean–roll!

Always aware life is short, aware he will probably die young, he strains for immortality:

My task is done–my song hath ceased–my theme
Has died into an echo …
and the glow
Which in my spirit dwelt is fluttering faint and low:

Farewell! a word that must be and hath been–

The poem “hit” like an atomic bomb in the culture.

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Byron came from a long line of suicides and madness, up to and including his mother (whose wild vagaries of mood he dreaded), and moving down (he feared) into his children, the ancestral tree filled with mysterious deaths. He was fully aware of all of this, understood the dangers, and understood he most probably had the same affliction.

While “Don Juan” is Byron’s masterpiece, his “I’ll Go No More a-Roving” has passed into the popular imagination/lexicon to a degree of which most poets can only dream. I knew of it practically from birth because my parents had an album by a short-lived folk group called The Raunch Hands (beloved by the O’Malley children), and they did a whimsical little cover of it.

But let’s get back to “Don Juan”. It’s so long and can’t in any way be considered finished. As in “English Bards and Scotch Reviewers” Byron goes after the Bigwigs of the day, calling them out by name in the excoriating “Dedication”, complete with contemptuous exclamation marks.

Bob Southey! You’re a poet, poet laureate,
And representative of all the race.
Although ’tis true that you turned out a Tory at
Last, yours has lately been a common case.
And now my epic renegade, what are ye at
With all the lakers, in and out of place?
A nest of tuneful persons, to my eye
Like four and twenty blackbirds in a pye,

Which pye being opened they began to sing’
(This old song and new simile holds good),
‘A dainty dish to set before the King’
Or Regent, who admires such kind of food.
And Coleridge too has lately taken wing,
But like a hawk encumbered with his hood,
Explaining metaphysics to the nation.
I wish he would explain his explanation.

Byron names names, tells secrets, gossips, and even though these may seem like quaint literary dust-ups, in Byron’s hands they still feel vital and urgent. Even if you disagree with him, or even if you wonder: Why are you DOING this, George? – you can feel he does actually have a point. In criticizing the “lake poets” in “Don Juan”, he criticizes their narrowness – the belljar in which they wrote – and how such self-selecting communities, reliant on consensus, are dangerous to culture. You really can’t fault him for feeling this way, even if you love Coleridge. I feel it when I read certain critics intoning their thoughts from on high, the idea implicit: “all right-thinking people must feel this way.” The arrogance of assuming you speak for all. Byron did not like it and attacked it.

You–Gentlemen! by dint of long seclusion
From better company, have kept your own
At Keswick, and, through still continued fusion
Of one another’s minds, at last have grown
To deem as a most logical conclusion,
That Poesy has wreaths for you alone:
There is a narrowness in such a notion,
Which makes me wish you’d change your
lakes for ocean.

He even takes on Milton. Byron had brass balls. When I read the following line, I hear Yeats, a century later.

Not even a sprightly blunder’s spark can blaze
From that Ixion grindstone’s ceaseless toil,
That turns and turns to give the world a notion
Of endless torments and perpetual motion.

Lord Byron died young. He’s buried at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire. (He was considered so immoral he was not allowed to be buried in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey.) The King of Greece, thankful to Byron for his tireless support of Greece, donated a marble plaque, marble pierced with shining gold lettering. A duplicate plaque lies in Westminster Abbey (where Byron was finally allowed entrance, 145 years after he died.)

The grave in Poet’s Corner lists Lord Byron’s dates, states he died in Greece, and then quotes from “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” (quoted above):

But there is that which in me which shall tire
Torture and Time, and breathe when I expire

QUOTES:

Lord Byron, on the publication of “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” in 1812:

I awoke one morning and found myself famous.

From The Winslow Boy, by Terence Rattigan:

Grace Winslow: Kate, do you love him?

Catherine: John? Yes, I do.

Grace: Do you? You don’t behave as if you were in love.

Catherine: How does one behave as if one is in love?

Arthur: One doesn’t read “The Social Evil and the Social Good”. One reads Lord Byron.

Christopher Hitchens:

His years of innocence were brief: at the age of nine he was subjected to much groping and fondling by his nurse, May Gray, who also used to whip him savagely and to terrorize him with hellfire religious rants. In other words, before he was ten, Byron had been made intimately aware of the relationship between sex and cruelty, and also the relationship between authority and superstition. I once proposed that a search be made for the gravesite of this sordid woman. It should be restored and preserved as a temple of the Romantic movement.

Lord Byron, 1822, to his doctor:

Which is the best and quickest poison?

George Orwell, “Notes on the Way”, Time and Tide, March-April 1940

Consequently there was a long period during which nearly every thinking man was in some sense a rebel, and usually a quite irresponsible rebel. Literature was largely the literature of revolt or of disintegration. Literature was largely the literature of revolt or of disintegration. Gibbon, Voltaire, Rousseau, Shelley, Byron, Dickens, Stendhal, Samuel Butler, Ibsen, Zola, Flaubert, Shaw, Joyce–in one way or another they are all of them destroyers, wreckers, saboteurs. For two hundred years we had sawed and sawed and sawed at the branch we were sitting on.

Mary Shelley, 1819:

All goes on as badly with the noble poet as ever I fear–he is a lost man if he does not escape soon.

Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae:

Byron would spurn Blakean innocence. He takes the Sadean approach to sex and psyche: make a line, so I can cross it. Unlike Blake or Wordsworth, Byron wants to reinforce the boundaries of self.

Sir Walter Scott:

I have just received Childe Harold, part 3rd. Lord Byron has more avowedly identified himself with his personage than upon former occasions, and in truth does not affect to separate them. It is wilder and less sweet, I think, than the first part, but contains even darker and more powerful pourings forth of the spirit which boils within him. I question whether there ever lived a man who, without looking abroad for subjects excepting as they produced an effect on himself, has contrived to render long poems turning almost entirely upon the feelings, character, and emotions of the author, so deeply interesting. We gaze on the powerful and ruined mind which he presents us, as on a shattered castle, within whose walls, once intended for nobler guests, sorcerers and wild demons are supposed to hold their Sabbaths. There is something dreadful in reflecting that one gifted so much above his fellow-creatures, should thus labour under some strange mental malady that destroys his peace of mind and happiness, altho’ it cannot quench the fire of his genius. I fear the termination will be fatal in one way or other, for it seems impossible that human nature can support the constant working of an imagination so dark and so strong. Suicide or utter insanity is not unlikely to close the scene.

should thus labour under some strange mental malady that destroys his peace of mind and happiness, altho’ it cannot quench the fire of his genius. His bipolar disorder was glaringly obvious, in my opinion.

Lord Byron on Sir Walter Scott, journal entry, January 5, 1782:

Wonderful man! I long to get drunk with him.

Sir Walter Scott:

[Byron has] the careless and negligent ease of a man of quality.

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems in the English Language:

Celebrated as the highest of High Romantics (the only one to attain a European reputation, in part because he does not lose too much by translation, but primarily because of his life), he despised Romanticism, and insisted that English poetry all but died with the death of Pope.

Thomas Moore:

[He has] a feminine cast of character in his caprices, fits of weeping, sudden affections and dislikes.

Christopher Hitchens, “Vladimir Nabokov: Hurricane Lolita”:

Lord Byron’s many lubricities are never far away; in the initial stages of his demented scheme Humbert quotes from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage: “To hold thee lightly on a gentle knee and print on thine soft cheek a parent’s kiss,” and when we look up the lines we find they are addressed to Harold’s absent daughter (who, like Byron’s child and Nabokov’s longest fiction, is named Ada). Humbert’s first, lost girlfriend, Annabel, is perhaps not unrelated to Byron’s first wife, Anne Isabella, who was known as “Annabella,” and she has parents named Leigh, just like Byron’s ravished half-sister Augusta. The Haze family physician, who gives Humbert the sleeping pills with which he drugs Lolita preparatory to the first rape at the Enchanted Hunters Hotel, is named Dr. Byron.

Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae:

After leaving Cambridge, Byron had an affair with a girl whom he dressed as a boy and called his brother…Byron’s responses are as bisexual as Shakespeare’s. He is equally and even simultaneously aroused by an effeminate boy and a bold cross-dressing woman. Byron’s last poems are addressed to a handsome Greek youth with whom he was unhappily infatuated. His early poems to “Thyrza” were inspired by a Cambridge choirboy, probably John Edleston. The boy has a female name partly because the poems could not have been published otherwise.

Lord Byron:

I am accused of every monstrous vice by public rumor and private rancour; my name, which had been a knightly or a noble one since my fathers helped to conquer the kingdom for William the Norman, was tainted. I felt that, if what was whispered, and muttered, and murmured, was true, I was unfit for England; if false, England was unfit for me…I recollect, some time after, Madame de Stael said to me in Switzerland, “You should not have warred with the world–it will not do–it is too strong always for any individual.” … I perfectly acquiesce in the truth of this remark; but the world has done me the honour to begin the war.

Annabella Millbanke, Byron’s wife, “Character of Lord Byron”:

The passions have been his guide from childhood and have exercised a tyrannical power over his very superior Intellect…When indignation takes possession of his mind–and it is easily excited–his disposition becomes malevolent. He hates with the bitterest contempt. But as soon as he has indulged those feelings, he regains the humanity which he had lost–from the immediate impulse of provocation–and repents deeply. So that his mind is continually making the most sudden transitions–from good to evil, from evil to good. A state of such perpetual tumult must be attended with the misery of restless inconsistency. He laments his want of tranquility and speaks of the power of application to composing studies, as a blessing placed beyond his attainment, which he regrets … He is inclined to open his heart unreservedly to those whom he believes good.

Elizabeth Bishop, letter to Robert Lowell, May 15, 1959:

Both [Keats] and Byron seem to have been killed off really by medical ignorance–ghastly deaths. A very stupid review by Louis Simpson of the life of Byron–in Kenyon?–seemed to show more lack of education.

Mary Shelley:

[He had a] magical influence [on people]…There was something enchanting in his manner, his voice, his smile–a fascination in them.

Lord Byron, in a letter:

You know — or you do not know — that my maternal Grandfather (a very clever man & amiable I am told) was strongly suspected of Suicide–(he was found drowned in the Avon at Bath) and that another very near relative of the same branch — took poison — & was merely saved by antidotes.–For the first of these events–there was no apparent cause–as he was rich, respected,–& of considerable intellectual resources–hardly forty years of age–& not at all addicted to any unhinging vice.–It was however but a strong suspicion–owing to the manner of his death–& to his melancholy temper.

George Orwell, “The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius”, Feburary 19, 1941

Except for Shakespeare, the best English poets are barely known in Europe, even as names. The only poets who are widely read are Byron, who is admired for the wrong reasons, and Oscar Wilde, who is pitied as a victim of English hypocrisy.

Lady Blessington:

[His] voice and accent are peculiarly agreeable, but effeminate.

Lord Byron, 1820 letter to his publisher:

All of us – Scott, Southey, Wordsworth, Moore, Campbell, I — are all in the wrong … we are upon a wrong revolutionary poetical system, or systems, not worth a damn in itself … and that the present and next generations will finally be of this opinion … I took Moore’s poems and my own, and some others, and went over them side by side with Pope’s, and I was really astonished (I ought not to have been) and mortified at the ineffable distance in point of sense, harmony, effect, and even Imagination, passion and Invention, between the little Queen Anne’s Man, and us of the Lower Empire.

Thomas Moore, on Byron and his mother:

It is told, as a curious proof of their opinion of each other’s violence, that, after parting one evening in a tempest … they were known to go privately that night to the apothecary’s inquiring anxiously whether the one had been to purchase poison, and cautioning the vendor of drugs not to attend to such an application, if made.

Lord Byron to Francis Palgrave, responding to Palgrave’s criticisms of the mood-swings in Don Juan:

Did he never spill a dish of tea over his testicles in handing the cup to his charmer to the great shame of his nankeen breeches?–did he never swim in the sea at Noonday with the Sun in his eyes and on his head–which all the foam of ocean could not cool? did he never draw his foot out of a tub of too hot water damning his eyes & his valet’s? did he never inject for a Gonorrhea? — or make water through an ulcerated Urethra? — was he ever in a Turkish bath — that marble paradise of sherbet and sodomy? — was he ever in a cauldron of boiling oil like St. John?

Robert Graves:

Byron knew and regretted the colossal vulgarity, which he shrouded by a cloak of aloof grandeur. It was a studious vulgarity: cosmetics and curl papers tended his elegant beauty; an ingenious, though synthetic, verse technique smoothed his cynical Spenserian stanzas. But he had unexpectedly come into a peerage and an estate while still ‘wee Georgie Gordon with the feetsies’ – whom his hysterical and unladylike mother used to send limping round the corner from her cheap Aberdeen lodgings to buy two-penny-worth of ‘blue ruin’; and whom, at the age of nine, a nymphomaniac Calvinist housemaid had violently debauched.

George Orwell, “Notes on Nationalism”, Poemic: A Magazine of Philosophy, Psychology & Aesthetics, No. 1, October 1945

Somewhere or other Byron makes use of the French word longueur, and remarks in passing that though in England we happen to not have the word, we have the thing in considerable profusion.

Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae:

The huge influence of Byron’s personality on the nineteenth century is still incompletely assessed. His early poems of brooding defiance, like Cain and Manfred, conform to the popular image of Byronism, but Don Juan actually captures the poet’s essential spirit. Don Juan is emotionally various and comprehensive…Byron defined mobility as “an excessive susceptibility of immediate impressions.” The mobile male is receptive and half-feminine..The many moods of Don Juan‘s omniscient narrator make him a Mercurius of multiple personae. The poem explores the emotional tonalities available to a poetic voice speaking for itself and not through projected characters.

Harold Bloom:

The last word in a discussion of Don Juan ought not to be “irony” but “mobility,” one of Byron’s favorite terms.

Lord Byron:

Mobilité is an excessive susceptibility of immediate impressions–at the same time without losing the past; and is, though sometimes apparently useful to the possessor, a most painful and unhappy attribute.

Jane Austen, Persuasion:

[Captain Benwick was] so intimately acquainted with all the tenderest songs of the one poet [Sir Walter Scott], and all the impassioned descriptions of hopeless agony of the other [Lord Byron]f; he repeated, with such tremulous feeling, the various lines which imaged a broken heart, or a mind destroyed by wretchedness, and looked so entirely as if he meant to be understood, that she ventured to hope he did not always read only poetry; and to say, that she thought it was the misfortune of poetry, to be seldom safely enjoyed by those who enjoyed it completely; and that the strong feelings which alone could estimate it truly, were the very feelings which ought to taste it but sparingly.

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems in the English Language:

Byron’s narcissism is smooth and self-delighting.

Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae:

Speed melts the object-world without remaking it. Revolutionary Byron senses an imminent change in the nature of space, which he did not live to see. Don Juan marks the first appearance in art of modern speed.

Alvin Kernan on Don Juan:

[The poem has] an onward rush … a vital forceful onward movement

Lord Byron, letter to Douglas Kinnaird:

[Don Juan] is the sublime of that there sort of writing–it may be bawdy–but is it not good English?–it may be profligate–but is it not life, is it not the thing? Could any man have written it–who has not lived in the world?– and tooled in a post-chaise? in a hackney coach? in a Gondola? Against a wall? in a court carriage? in a vis-a-vis?–on a table?–and under it?

Christopher Hitchens, The Atlantic, 2002:

The grave of early death is the seal on the Romantic pact; Byron did not live to become gross and farcical and reminiscent. Instead his gallant ending was the signal and the symbol for later European revolt. Mazzini was inspired by it, Victor Hugo and Heinrich Henne were consumed by it, Adam Mickiewicz fought and wrote for Poland in Byronic mode, and one of the young poets who led the Decembrist revolution against the Czar went to the scaffold with a volume of Byron in his hand. Men of somewhat different temper were still much affected: Matthew Arnold wrote of Bryon as “that world-fam’d Son of Fire.” Oscar Wilde, always fascinated by hubris, worshipped Byron and made a sly guess or two about his relationship with Shelley. There’s no equivalent in our own time — though Byron’s decision to name his ship the Bolivar does suggest a connection with the cult of Che Guevara. At any rate, if his life may illustrate Jane Austen’s admonition that the intoxications of poetry are not conducive to proper stability and well-being, his work is the best-known refutation of Auden’s judgment, on Yeats, that “poetry makes nothing happen.”

Michael Schmidt:

His wickedness is beguiling – and constraining.

The Duchess of Devonshire, 1812:

Childe Harold is on every table, and himself courted, visited, flattered and praised whenever he appears … He is really the only topic of conversation–the men jealous of him, the women of each other.

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems in the English Language:

Weary of his life, Byron went to Greece to seek a soldier’s death at thirty-six, and found it. He found also, though, a last, bitter, frustrated homosexual passion for his Greek page boy Loukas, and his final verses and letters betray profound self-disgust but an unwearied intelligence and quick humor. His death at Missolonghi in April 1824 saved him from middle age, and made his legend imperishable.

Lord Byron, 1813:

I am not well; and yet I look in good health. At times, I fear, “I am not in my perfect mind;”– and yet my heart and head have stood many a crash, and what should ail them now? They prey upon themselves, and I am sick–sick–why should a cat, a rat, a dog have life– and thou no life at all?

William Hazlitt on “Don Juan”:

A mind preying upon itself.

Byron, letter to his literary agent, Douglas Kinnaird, October 1819:

As to “Don Juan”—-confess—-confess—-you dog and be candid that it is the sublime of that there sort of writing—-it may be bawdy—-but is it not good English? It may be profligate but is it not life, is it not the thing?

Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae:

Critics sometimes speak of the “swiftness” of Shelley’s poetry. But Shelley’s movement is upward. He seeks rhapsodic exaltation (exaltare means “to lift up”). Byron is never exalted. His movement is secular and vehicular. Byron’s space was created by the Renaissance Age of Discovery and measured by the Enlightenment…Shelley is spiritual verticality, Byron earthly horizontality. Shelley is always subverting horizontals: the Witch of Atlas’ boat defies gravity and sails upstream, or the procession of “The Triumph of Time” shows life as a leaden line of slaves. Shelley’s objects…are weightless and porous, penetrated by vision. Byron’s concrete objects are firmly fixed in space and time. Shelley’s imagination moves, but what movies in Byron is the body. Byron is a Greek athlete, challenging and surpassing. Objects are his counters and stepping stones.

Matthew Arnold:

The English poetry of the first quarter of this century, with plenty of energy, plenty of creative force, did not know enough. This makes Byron so empty of matter, Shelley so incoherent, Wordsworth even, profound as he is, yet so wanting in completeness and variety.

Byron, letter to Thomas Moore:

I should, many a good day, have blown my brains out, but for the recollection that it would have given pleasure to my mother-in-law; and, even then, if I could have been certain to haunt her — but I won’t dwell upon these trifling family matters.

John Hobhouse, describing Byron’s 1815 marriage ceremony:

Miss M. was as firm as a rock and during the whole ceremony looked steadily at Byron–she repeated the words audibly & well. B. hitched at first when he said, “I George Gordon” and when he came to the words “with all my worldly goods I thee endow” looked at me with half a smile.

Augusta Leigh, Byron’s half-sister, letter to Lady Byron:

I have before told you of his hints of self destruction. The night before last, I went as usual to his room to light his Candles & seeing a Draught on the chimney piece which looked fermenting, I said “What is this.” “My Draught, to be sure–what did you think it was? Laudanum?” I replied jokingly that I was not even thinking of Laudanum & the truth — that I thought the Draughts spoilt, which caused my inquiry. He immediately looked very dark & black (in the old way) & said “I have plenty of Laudanum–& shall use it.” Upon my laughing & trying to turn off the subject he only repeated in the most awful manner his most solemn determination on the subject.

A Pig’s-Eye View of Literature
By Dorothy Parker

The Lives and Times of John Keats,
Percy Bysshe Shelley, and
George Gordon Noel, Lord Byron

Byron and Shelley and Keats
Were a trio of Lyrical treats.
The forehead of Shelley was cluttered with curls,
And Keats never was a descendant of earls,
And Byron walked out with a number of girls,
But it didn’t impair the poetical feats
Of Byron and Shelley,
Of Byron and Shelley,
Of Byron and Shelley and Keats.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, letter to R.W. Dixon, December, 1881:

This modern medieval school is descended from the Romantic school (Romantic is a bad word) of Keats, Leigh Hunt, Hood, indeed of Scott early in the century. That was one school; another was that of the Lake poets and also of Shelley and Landor; the third was the sentimental school, of Byron, Moore, Mrs. Hemans, and Haynes Bailey. Schools are very difficult to class: the best guide, I think, are keepings. Keats’ school chooses medieval keepings, not pure nor drawn from the middle ages direct but as brought down through that Elizabethan tradition of Shakespeare and his contemporaries which died out in such men as Herbert and Herrick. They were also great realists and observers of nature. The Lake poets and all that school represent, as it seems to me, the mean or standard of English style and diction, which culminated in Milton but was never very continuous or vigorously transmitted, and in fact none of these men unless perhaps Landor were great masters of style, though their diction is generally pure, lucid, and unarchaic. They were faithful but not rich observers of nature. Their keepings are their weak point, a sort of colourless classical keepings: when Wordsworth wants to describe a city or a cloudscape which reminds him of a city it is some ordinary rhetorical stage-effect of domes, palaces, and temples. Byron’s school had a deep feeling but the most untrustworthy and barbarous eye, for nature; a diction markedly modern; and their keepings any gaud or a lot of Oriental rubbish…Now since this time Tennyson and his school seem to me to have struck a mean or compromise between Keats and the medievalists on the one hand and Wordsworth and the Lake School on the other (Tennyson has some jarring notes of Byron in Lady Clare Vere de Vere, Locksley Hall and elsewhere).

Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae:

The breeziness of Don Juan is the freshness of a spring breeze, a new spirit entering and aerating history. The breeze emanating from Byron–literally, his emanation–is the spirit of youth, which was to have enormous impact upon European and American culture. Rousseau invented the modern cult of childhood; Goethe popularized Rousseau’s moody adolescent. But Byron created the glamourous sexy youth of brash, defiant energy, the new embodied in a charismatic sexual persona. Hence Byron senses the dawn of the age of speed. Youth is swiftness in emotionally transient form. Transience, from the Latin transeo, contains the ideas both of travel and of the short-lived. Byron, portrayed by Goethe as the androgynous, self-thwarted Euophorion, died in 1824. The first passenger locomotive appeared in 1825. Byron’s spirit seems to have transmigrated into the engine of speed.

Bernard Blackstone:

We know how much Byron objected to seeing his wife eating, and while this may have something to do with his own horror of obesity and recollections of his mother’s gormandising, there were probably moments at which Byron saw himself as an homunculus between the steady munch, munch of Annabella’s upper and lower jaws.

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems in the English Language:

If we can put aside the phenomenon of Byronism, which flowered extravagantly all over Europe after so Romantic a death, we are left with two parts of Byron’s accomplishment–Don Juan and everything else. Of the latter, there is clearly lasting value in a handful of lyrics, in aspects of Childe Harold III and IV, and of Manfred, and major achievement in Cain and in The Vision of Judgment. But, taken together, this is little compared with Don Juan, which only Shelley of Byron’s contemporaries judged accurately and adequately, as being something wholly new and yet completely relevant to the Romantic Age.

Lord Byron, 1815 letter to his father-in-law:

During the last year I have had to contend with distress without–& disease within–upon the former I have little to say–except that I have endeavoured to remove it by every sacrifice in my power–& the latter I should not mention if I had not recent & professional authority for saying–that the disorder which I have to combat–without much impairing my apparent health–is such as to induce a morbid irritability of temper–which–without recurring to external causes–may have rendered me little less disagreeable to others than I am to myself–I am however ignorant of any particular ill treatment which your daughter has encountered:–she may have seen me gloomy–& at times violent–but she knows the causes too well to attribute such inequalities of disposition to herself–or even to me–if all things be fairly considered.

Self-awareness. It’s so hard to name the malady when you suffer from it.

W.H. Auden:

He had no unusual emotional or intellectual vision, and his distinctive contribution to English poetry was to be, not the defiant thunder of a rebel angel, but the speaking voice of the tolerant man-about-town.

Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae:

Byron loved water and was so expert a swimmer that he wondered if he had been a merman in a previous life. He chose a mermaid for his carriage crest. Is the mermaid androgynous Byron–or archetypal woman closed to penetration? Swimming was club-footed Byron’s freest motion. One of his feats was swimming the Hellspont: Byron honored liquidity but sought to dominate it, athletically. As much as Wordsworth, he wanted nature without chthonian danger. The clarity of Byron’s late style is a denial of the murk of woman and water.

from “Letter to Lord Byron”
By W.H. Auden

Excuse, my lord, the liberty I take
In thus addressing you. I know that you
Will pay the price of authorship and make
The allowances an author has to do.
A poet’s fan-mail will be nothing new.
And then a lord—Good Lord, you must be peppered,
Like Gary Cooper, Coughlin, or Dick Sheppard,

With notes from perfect strangers starting, ‘Sir,
I liked your lyrics, but Childe Harold’s trash,’
‘My daughter writes, should I encourage her?’
Sometimes containing frank demands for cash,
Sometimes sly hints at a platonic pash,
And sometimes, though I think this rather crude,
The correspondent’s photo in the nude…

I see his face in every magazine.
‘Don Juan at lunch with one of Cochran’s ladies.’
‘Don Juan with his red setter May MacQueen.’
‘Don Juan, who’s just been wintering in Cadiz,
Caught at the wheel of his maroon Mercedes.’
‘Don Juan at Croydon Aerodrome.’ ‘Don Juan
Snapped in the paddock with the Aga Khan.’…

Byron, thou should’st be living at this hour!
What would you do, I wonder, if you were?
Britannia’s lost prestige and cash and power,
Her middle classes show some wear and tear,
We’ve learned to bomb each other from the air;
I can’t imagine what the Duke of Wellington
Would say about the music of Duke Ellington…

You’ve had your packet from time critics, though:
They grant you warmth of heart, but at your head
Their moral and aesthetic brickbats throw.
A ‘vulgar genius’ so George Eliot said,
Which doesn’t matter as George Eliot’s dead,
But T. S. Eliot, I am sad to find,
Damns you with: ‘an uninteresting mind’.

A statement which I must say I’m ashamed at;
A poet must be judged by his intention,
And serious thought you never said you aimed at.
I think a serious critic ought to mention
That one verse style was really your invention,
A style whose meaning does not need a spanner,
You are the master of the airy manner.

Lord Byron:

The great object of life is Sensation — to feel that we exist — even though in pain — it is this “craving void” which drives us to Gaming — to Battle — to Travel — to intemperate but keenly felt pursuits of every description whose principal attraction is the agitation inseparable from their accomplishment.

Lady Blessington, 1823:

[He] forcibly reminded me of the description of Rousseau: he declared himself the victim of persecution wherever he went; said that there was a confederacy to pursue and molest him, and uttered a thousand extravagances, which proved that he was no longer master of himself. I now understood how likely his manner was, under any violent excitement, to give rise to the idea that he was deranged in his intellects. The next day, when we met, Byron asked me if I had not thought him mad the night before: “I assure,” said he, “I often think myself not in my right senses, and this is perhaps the only opinion I have in common with Lady Byron.”

Ford Madox Ford:

To an Anglo Saxon concerned for his poetry and his language, both verse and language of Byron are odious.

Lord Bryon:

We of the craft are all crazy. Some are affected by gaiety, others by melancholy, but all are more or less touched.

Jeanette Winterson:

Even Byron at his most rollicking and least controlled is an intense poet.

Lord Byron, 1807:

Nature stampt me in the Die of Indifference. I consider myself as destined never to be happy, although in some instances fortunate. I am an isolated Being on the Earth, without a Tie to attach me to life.

Camille Paglia, in Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, comparing Byron to Elvis Presley.

Byron belongs to the category of androgyne I invented for Michelangelo’s Giuliano de’Medici: Epicoene, or the man of beauty, an athlete of alabaster skin. Jane Porter found Byron’s complexion “softly brilliant,” with a “moonlight paleness.” Lady Blessington called his face “peculiarly pale,” set off by curling hair of “very dark brown”: “He uses a good deal of oil in it, which makes it look still darker.” White skin, dark oiled hair: Elvis Presley. In homage to singer Roy Orbison, Presley dyed his brown-blonde hair black and continued to do so to the end, despite friends’ urging to let the natural color return. Presley, a myth-maker, understood the essence of his archetypal beauty.

Byron and Elvis Presley look alike, especially in strong-nosed Greek profile. In Glenarvon, a roman a clef about her affair with Byron, Caroline Lamb says of her heroine’s first glimpse of him, “The proud curl of the upper lip expressed haughtiness and bitter contempt.” Presley’s sneer was so emblematic that he joked about it. In a 1968 television special, he twitched his mouth and murmured, to audience laughter, “I’ve got something on my lip.” The Romantic curling lip is aristocratic disdain: Presley is still called “the King,” testimony to the ritual needs of a democratic populace. As revolutionary sexual personae, Byron and Presley had early and late styles: brooding menace, then urbane magnanimity. Their everyday manners were manly and gentle. Presley had a captivating soft-spoken charm. The Byronic hero, says Peter Thorslev, is “invariably courteous toward women.” Byron and Presley were world-shapers, conduits of titanic force, yet they were deeply emotional and sentimental in a feminine sense.

Both had late Orientalizing periods. Byron, drawn to Oriental themes, went off to fight the Turks in the Greek war of independence and died of a mysterious illness at Missolonghi. A portrait shows him in silk turban and embroidered Albanian dress. The costume style of Presley’s last decade was nearly Mithraic: jewel-encrusted silk jumpsuits, huge studded belts, rings, chains, sashes, scarves. This resembles Napoleon’s late phase, as in Ingres’ portrait of the emperor enthroned in Byzantine splendor, weighed down in velvet, ermine, and jewels. Napoleon, Byron, and Presley began in simplicity as flaming assertions of youthful male will, and all three ended as ornate objets de cult. British legend envisions a “westering” of culture: Troy to Rome to London. But there is also an eastern of culture. We are far from our historical roots in Mesopotamia and Asia Minor; yet again and again, collective emotion swelling about a charismatic European personality instinctively returns him or her to the east. Elizabeth I also ended as a glittering Byzantine icon.

Another parallel: Byron and Presley were renowned for athletic vigor, yet both suffered chronic ailments that somehow never marred their glossy complexions or robust beauty. Both constantly fought off corpulence, Presley losing toward the end. Both died prematurely, Byron at thirty-six, Presley at forty-two. Byron’s autopsy revealed an enlarged heart, degenerated liver and gall bladder, cerebral inflammation, and obliteration of the skull sutures. Presley suffered an enlarged heart and degenerated colon and liver. In both cases, tremendous physical energy was oddly fused with internal disorder, a revolt of the organism. Presley’s drugs were symptom, not cause. Psychogenetically, Byron and Presley practiced the secret art of feminine self-impairment.

Coleridge on Byron, Table Talk:

It seems to my ear, that there is a sad want of harmony in Lord Byron’s verses. Is it not unnatural to be always connecting very great intellectual power with utter depravity? Does such a combination often really exist in rerum natura?

Countess Albrizzi:

His neck, which he was in the habit of keeping uncovered as much as the usages of society permitted, seemed to have been formed in a mould, and was very white.

Lord Byron:

[Poetry] is the lava of the imagination whose eruption prevents an earth-quake–they say Poets never or rarely go mad…but are generally so near it–that I cannot help thinking rhyme is so far useful in anticipating & preventing the disorder.

Michael Schmidt, in Lives of the Poets:

Byron is, certainly, tactless, but not wholly undiscriminating. His attacks on Southey, Wordsworth, Coleridge and Keats are more than the effusions of prejudice, even if they are less than the fruit of cool judgment. He hated Southey’s change from radical to Tory: it condemned the older poet tout court. But Byron was too young to have experienced the euphoria and subsequent trauma of betrayal that was the French Revolution. His politics were not lived until he went to Greece to fight for freedom and died. Those of a Whig aristocrat, his politics were more the product of certain social aversions and personal pique than of pondered experience: politics from the outside. He chose Greece as his theater of political action, not Britain. His civic heart beat more vigorously abroad than at home.

Percy Bysshe Shelley:

Lord B’s establishment consists, besides servants, of ten horses, eight enormous dogs, three monkeys, five cats, an eagle, a crow, and a falcon, and all these, except the horses, walk about the house, which every now and then resounds with their unarbitrated quarrels, as if they were the masters of it … Later I find that my enumeration of the animals in this Circean Palace was defective, and that in a material point. I have just met on the grand staircase, five peacocks, two guinea hens, and an Egyptian crane.

LOL.

Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae, on Wuthering Heights and Byron:

In Heathcliff there is now a direct passage between Byronism and natural power, for in Byron’s poetry, nature serves largely as lyrical background…Heathcliff’s seminal weakness betrays his transsexual origins. He is a woman with a man’s energy but without a man’s potency. By denying her Byronic hero a consummate vitality, Emily Bronte shows that she sees through Lord Byron’s seducer’s mask and discerns his Romantic hermaphroditism. An artist’s intuition: Goethe and Balzac similarly show Byron as half-feminine Euphorion and bisexual Lord Dudley, progenitor of androgynes. Yet Byron’s international reputation for grand machismo persisted until G. Wilson Knight’s modern studies.

From Tennessee Williams’ beautiful little one-act play Lord Byron’s Love Letter:

SPINSTER. Only a short while later Byron was killed.

MATRON. How did he die?

OLD WOMAN. He was killed in action, defending the cause of freedom! [This is uttered so strongly the husband starts]

SPINSTER. When my Grandmother received the news of Lord Byron’s death in battle, she retired from the world and remained in complete seclusion for the rest of her life.

MATRON. Tch-tch-tch! How dreadful! I think that was foolish of her. [The cane taps furiously behind the curtain]

SPINSTER. You don’t understand. When a life is completed, it ought to be put away. It’s like a sonnet. When you’ve written out the final couplet, why go on any further? You only destroy the part that’s already written!

Thomas Moore:

Seeing an unfortunate woman lying on the steps of a door, Lord Byron, with some expression of compassion, offered her a few shillings, but, instead of accepting them, she violently pushed away his hand, and, starting up with a yell of laughter, began to mimic the lameness of his gait. He did not utter a word; but “I could feel,” said Mr. Bailey, “his arm trembling within mine, as we left her.”

Lord Byron:

There are some natures that have a predisposition to grief, as others have to disease. The causes that have made me wretched would probably not have discomposed, or, at least, more than discomposed, another. We are all differently organized; and that I feel acutely is no more my fault (though it is my misofrtune) than that another feels not, is his. We did not make ourselves, and if the elements of unhappiness abound more in the nature of one man than another, he is but the more entitled to our pity and our forebearance.

What a beautiful statement. I agree whole-heartedly and write about this all the time. If we want to de-stigmatize mental illness, then we actually need to understand it, and treat people who suffer with kindness and “forebearance”, not judgment.

Michael Schmidt on Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage:

The narrator is not the emphatic Byron known to his foes and friends, but the kind of man he liked to imagine himself to be: morose, enigmatic, bitter, dashing, cultured, with certain social ideals and an eye for the picturesque. If he were less nebulous he would be fascinating. He travels and reflects. More substantial than his reflections is the question: Why he is so gloomy? Byron was not quick to deny that Childe Harold and George Gordon were the same chap. Was this his darker side? Inspired by his nurse’s Calvinism, perhaps, or his love for his half sister? In fact the narrator isn’t Byron. He is an early manifestation of the Byronic hero. The poem struggles toward dramatic monologue. Lack of design, a chronicle progression, a unity depending entirely upon the narrator, point toward the picaresque mode of Don Juan, his masterpiece.

Lord Byron, 1808 letter to John Hobhouse:

My dear Hobhouse,–The Game is almost up, for these last five days I have been confined to my room, Laudanum is my sole support, and even Pearson wears a woeful visage as he prescribes, however I am now better and I trust my house is not yet arrived.– I begin to apprehend a complete Bankruptcy of Constitution, and on disclosing the mode of my Life for these last two years (of which my residence at Cambridge constituted the most sober part) my [Surgeon] pronounced another quarter would have settled my earthly accounts, and left the worms but a scant repast.–

John Cam Hobhouse, friend:

No man ever lived who had such devoted friends. His power of attaching those about him to his person was such as no one I ever knew possessed. No human being could approach him without being sensible of this magical influence. There was something commanding, but not overawing in his manner. He was neither grave nor gay out of place, and he seemed always made for that company in which he happened to find himself. There was a mildness and yet a decision in his mode of conversing, and even in his address, which are seldom united in the same person. He appeared exceedingly free, open, and unreserved to everybody.

Lord Byron, 1811:

At twenty-three the best of life is over and its bitters double. I am sick at heart. I have outlived all my appetites and most of my vanities.

Lady Blessington:

I am sure, that if ten individuals undertook the task of describing Byron, no two, of the ten, would agree in their verdict respecting him, or convey any portrait that resembled the other, and yet the description of each might be correct, according to his or her received opinion; but the truth is, the chameleon-like character or manner of Byron renders it difficult to portray him.

Teresa Guiccioli (Byron’s mistress):

New and striking thoughts followed from him in rapid succession, and the flame of his genius lighted up as if winged with wildfire.

Lord Byron to John Hobhouse, 1819:

I am so bilious–that I nearly lose my head–and so nervous that I cry for nothing–at least today I burst into tears all alone by myself over a cistern of Gold fishes–which are not pathetic animals…I have been excited–and agitated and exhausted mentally and bodily all this summer–till I really sometimes begin to think not only “that I shall die at top first”–but that the moment is not very remote.–I have had no particular cause of grief–except the usual accompaniments of all unlawful passions.

L.M. Montgomery, journal entry:

Don’t like the man as well as I like his poetry — for I do like Byron’s poetry very much. It thrills some chords in my being as no other poet can do. Byron is out of fashion — but he is immortal for all that. Passion is always immortal and he touched too poignantly all its notes, of spirit as well as sense, ever to be forgotten. But his letters make a disagreeable impression on me. They give a sense of unreality and posing. And his life — what a series of tragedies it was! For himself and the women entangled in it. He was a being of storm-cloud and lightning flash — beautiful, ruinous, transient.

Lady Byron (Annabelle Millbanke, his wife):

The day after my marriage he said, ‘You were determined not to marry a man in whose family there was insanity’…–‘You have done very well indeed,’ or some ironical expression to that effect, followed by the information that his maternal grandfather had committed suicide, and a Cousin had been mad, & set fire to a house.

Lord Byron to Teresa Guiccioli, September, 1821:

This season kills me with sadness every year. You know my last year’s melancholy–and when I have that disease of the Spirit–it is better for others that I should keep away … Love me. My soul is like the leaves that fall in autumn — all yellow — A cantata!

Michael Schmidt again:

Byron hated “sentimental and sensibilitous” people. His dismissal of Keats is only the most damaging aspect of this hatred, which became an assertive, sometimes aggressive expression of virility in his work, masking his sexual ambivalences. Everywhere we sense an impetuous, unresting nature, a personal amorality of a sort that became more common, if less macho and exuberant, later in the century: “The great object of life is sensation – to feel that we exist, even though in pain.”

Thomas Moore, friend of Byron:

His very defects were among the elements of his greatness. Out of the struggle between the good and evil principles of his nature that his mighty genius drew its strength.

Lord Byron, 1813 letter to future wife:

–You don’t like my ‘restless’ doctrines–I should be very sorry if you did–but I can’t stagnate nevertheless–if I must sail let it be on the ocean no matter how stormy–anything but a dull cruise on a level lake without ever losing sight of the same insipid shores by which it is surrounded–

Matthew Arnold:

Wordsworth, Scott, and Keats have left admirable works; far more solid and complete works than those which Byron and Shelley left. But their works have this defect – they do not belong to that which is the main current of the literature of modern epochs, they do not apply modern ideas to life. They constitute, therefore, minor concerns… [Shelley and Byron will be remembered] long after the inadequacy of their actual work is clearly recognised, for their passionate, their Titanic effort to flow in the main stream of modern literature; their names will be greater than their writings.

Lord Byron, 1821, journal:

What is the reason that I have been, all my lifetime, more or less ennuyé…I presume that it is constitutional,–as well as the waking in low spirits, which I have invariably done for many years. Temperance and exercise, which I have practiced at times, and for a long time together vigorously and violently, made little or no difference. Violent passions did,–when under their immediate influence–it is odd, but–I was in agitated, but not in depressed spirits.

Lord Byron:

I differed not at all from other children, being neither tall nor short, dull nor witty…but rather lively–except in my sullen moods, and then I was always a devil … They once (in one of my silent rages) wrenched a knife from me, which I had snatched from the table … and applied it to my breast.”

Robert Graves again:

I pair Byron and Nero as the two most dangerously talented bounders of all time.

Kay Redfield Jamison, Touched with Fire:

The severity and pattern of Byron’s moods, and their devastating effect upon his life, form part of the argument for a diagnosis of manic-depressive illness rather than cyclothymic temperament alone. Yet Byron’s temperament, coupled with his poetic genius, made him who he was. Byron is perhaps alone among English writers in having a particular kind of temperament and personal style named for him. The “Byron” has come to mean the theatrical, Romantic, brooding, mock heroic, posturing, cynical, passionate, or sardonic. Unfortunately, these epithets suggest an exaggerated or even insincere quality, and in doing so tend to minimize the degree of genuine suffering that Byron experienced; such a characterization also overlooks the extraordinary intellectual and emotional discipline he exerted over a kind of pain that brings most who experience it to their knees.

Michael Schmidt:

For biography is a necessary concern when we approach Byron’s verse. His most original invention is the Byronic hero, and we must determine the degree to which this creature, his attitudes and gestures, correspond with Byron, and to what degree they amount to a persona, a consistent mask from behind which he enacts his views or discredits the views of others.

Lord Byron on his daughter Ada:

Her temper is said to be extremely violent.–Is it so?–It is not unlikely considering her parentage.–My temper is what it is–so you may perhaps divine–and my Lady’s was a nice little sullen nucleus of concentrated Savageness to mould my daughter upon,–to say nothing of her two Grandmothers–both of whom, to my knowledge were as pretty specimens of female Spirit–as you might wish to see on a Summer’s day.

Thomas Moore:

In coming out, one night, from a hall, with Mr. Rogers, as they were on their way to the carriage, one of the link-boys ran on before Lord Byron, crying, “This way, my lord.” “He seems to know you,” said Mr. Rogers. “Know me!” answered Lord Byron, with some degree of bitterness in his tone; “everyone knows me — I am deformed.”

Lady Blessington:

The mind of Lord Byron was like a volcano, full of fire and wealth, sometimes calm, often dazzling and playful, but ever threatening. It ran swift as the lightning from one subject to another, and occasionally burst forth in passionate throes of intellect, nearly allied to madness.

Walter Savage Landor:

Byron possesses the soul of poetry, which is energy; but he wants that ideal beauty which is the sumblimer emanation, I will not say of the real, for this is the more real of the two, but of that which is ordinarily subject to the senses.

Lord Byron to Lady Blessington:

I am so changeable, being every thing by turns and nothing long,–I am such a strange melange of good and evil, that it would be difficult to describe me.

Michael Schmidt:

The Don Juan narrator is his artistic triumph, a voice urbane and amusing, of a droll cynic who can speak with tact and delicacy, as in the Haidee episode, but is also capable of virulence, good humor, mischief, bathos and vulgarity… Byron switches political satire on and off as the spirit moves him. He abandons the formal singularity of his master Pope. He laughs at his manipulation of language more often than he chastises particular evils. In scope, the epic includes Europe, Africa and Asia Minor in the action. But it’s epic without gods.

Lord Byron, to Lady Byron, asking her to review what he wrote about her in his memoirs:

I could wish you to see, read and mark any part or parts that do not appear to coincide with the truth.–The truth I have always stated–but there are two ways of looking at it– and your way may not be mind.–I have never revised the papers since they were written.–You may read them–and mark what you please. You will find nothing to flatter you–nothing to lead you to the most remote supposition that we could ever have been–or be happy together.–But I do not choose to give to another generation statements which we cannot arise from the dust to prove or disprove–without letting you see fairly & fully what I look upon you to have been–and what I depict you as being.–If seeing this–you can detect what is false–or answer what is charged–do so–your mark shall not be erased.

Lord Byron to John Murray:

I am not sure that long life is desirable for one of my temper & constitutional depression of Spirits.

W.H. Auden:

Whatever its faults, Don Juan is the most original poem in English.

Jeanette Winterson, “Writer, Reader, Words”:

To fix the date is difficult but I do not think it far fetched to say that the gap between the death of the last Romantic (Byron) in 1824 and the heyday of Oscar Wilde in the 1890s, is the gap where Realism, as we understand it, was birthed and matured. It is instructive to look at how dress codes alter between, say, 1825 and 1845. The eighteenth-century dandy is out, the sober Victorian so beloved of costume drama, is in. No more embroidered waistcoats, lurid colors, topiary wigs, dashing cravats, pan-stick faces and ridiculous buckles and heels. For men, the change is immense and as men are stripped of all their finery, women are loaded down with theirs. There is a marked polarization of the sexes, and whereas Byron could cheerfully wear jewels and make-up without compromising his masculinity any man who tried to do throughout the sixty glorious years might pay for his display with his liberty. The new foppishness of Oscar Wilde and the Decadents in the 1890s was as much a strike back into what had been allowed to men, as a move forward into what might be.

William Hazlitt:

He hangs the cloud, the film of his existence over all outward things–sits in the centre of his thoughts, and enjoys dark night, bright day, the glitter and the gloom “in cell monastic”–we see the mournful pall, the crucifix, the death’s heads, the faded chaplet of flowers, the gleaming tapers, the agonized growl of genius, the wasted form of beauty–but we are still imprisoned in a dungeon, a curtain intercepts our view, we do not breathe freely the air of nature or of our own thoughts.

Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine:

It appears as if this miserable man, having exhausted every species of sensual gratification–having drained the cup of sin even to its bitterest dregs, were resolved to shew us that he is no longer a human being, even in his frailties, but a cool unconcerned fiend.

Lord Byron:

As long as I can remember anything, I recollect being subject to violent paroxysms of rage, so disproportioned to the cause, as to surprise me when they were over, and this still continues. I cannot coolly view anything that excites my feelings; and once the lurking devil in me is roused, I lose all command of myself. I do not recover a good fit of rage for days after: mind, I do not by this means that the ill-humour continues, as, on the contrary, that quickly subsides, exhausted by its own violence; but it shakes me terribly, and leaves me low and nervous after.

W.H. Auden:

Byron was an egotist and, like all egotists, capable of falling in love with a succession of dream-figures, but incapable of genuine love or fidelity which accepts a person completely … he was also acutely conscious of guilt and sin… When Byron had ceased to identify his moral sense with himself and had discovered how to extract the Byronic Satanism from his lonely hero and to turn it into the Byronic Irony which illuminated the whole setting, when he realized that he was a little ridiculous, but also not as odd as he imagined, he became a great poet.

Christopher Hitchens:

Byron’s career is more like a comet than the meteor to which it is usually compared: it comes around again and again, to be reviewed and revisited. And his life has become indissoluble from his work.

Lord Byron:

I can never get people to understand that poetry is the expression of excited passions, and that there is no such thing as a life of passion any more than a continuous earthquake, or an eternal fever. Besides, who would ever shave themselves in such a state?

Goethe:

Byron alone I admit to a place to my side.

John Ruskin:

Byron was to be my master in verse, as Turner in colour. Here at last I have found a man who spoke only of what he had seen, and known; and spoke without exaggeration, without mystery, iwthout enmity, and without mercy.

Lord Tennyson:

When I heard of his death I went out to the back of the house and cut on a wall with my knife, “Lord Byron is dead.”

Memorial Verses April 1850
BY MATTHEW ARNOLD
Goethe in Weimar sleeps, and Greece,
Long since, saw Byron’s struggle cease.
But one such death remain’d to come;
The last poetic voice is dumb—
We stand to-day by Wordsworth’s tomb.

When Byron’s eyes were shut in death,
We bow’d our head and held our breath.
He taught us little; but our soul
Had felt him like the thunder’s roll.
With shivering heart the strife we saw
Of passion with eternal law;
And yet with reverential awe
We watch’d the fount of fiery life
Which served for that Titanic strife.

When Goethe’s death was told, we said:
Sunk, then, is Europe’s sagest head.
Physician of the iron age,
Goethe has done his pilgrimage.
He took the suffering human race,
He read each wound, each weakness clear;
And struck his finger on the place,
And said: Thou ailest here, and here!

He look’d on Europe’s dying hour
Of fitful dream and feverish power;
His eye plunged down the weltering strife,
The turmoil of expiring life—
He said: The end is everywhere,
Art still has truth, take refuge there!
And he was happy, if to know
Causes of things, and far below
His feet to see the lurid flow
Of terror, and insane distress,
And headlong fate, be happiness.

And Wordsworth!—Ah, pale ghosts, rejoice!
For never has such soothing voice
Been to your shadowy world convey’d,
Since erst, at morn, some wandering shade
Heard the clear song of Orpheus come
Through Hades, and the mournful gloom.
Wordsworth has gone from us—and ye,
Ah, may ye feel his voice as we!
He too upon a wintry clime
Had fallen—on this iron time
Of doubts, disputes, distractions, fears.
He found us when the age had bound
Our souls in its benumbing round;
He spoke, and loosed our heart in tears.
He laid us as we lay at birth
On the cool flowery lap of earth,
Smiles broke from us and we had ease;

The hills were round us, and the breeze
Went o’er the sun-lit fields again;
Our foreheads felt the wind and rain.
Our youth return’d; for there was shed
On spirits that had long been dead,
Spirits dried up and closely furl’d,
The freshness of the early world.

Ah! since dark days still bring to light
Man’s prudence and man’s fiery might,
Time may restore us in his course
Goethe’s sage mind and Byron’s force;
But where will Europe’s latter hour
Again find Wordsworth’s healing power?
Others will teach us how to dare,
And against fear our breast to steel;
Others will strengthen us to bear—
But who, ah! who, will make us feel?
The cloud of mortal destiny,
Others will front it fearlessly—
But who, like him, will put it by?

Keep fresh the grass upon his grave,
O Rotha, with thy living wave!
Sing him thy best! for few or none
Hears thy voice right, now he is gone.

 
 
Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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10 Responses to “I doubt sometimes whether a quiet and unagitated life would have suited me–yet I sometimes long for it.” — Lord Byron

  1. Jaquandor says:

    Great post!

    I haven’t read nearly enough Byron, but Byron was a literary hero of my favorite composer, Hector Berlioz…here’s a post of mine about the symphony Berlioz wrote using Childe Harold as inspiration.

    And also, the time I found a very old copy of Byron’s works at my library’s used book sale.

    • sheila says:

      Jaquandor – Two fascinating posts!!

      I love your writing on classical music – I know nothing about it although I appreciate and love much of it. I had piano training for about 15 years in my childhood/teenager-dom – but never really got a handle on the structure. So it’s really fascinating for me to read analysis like yours. Thank you!!

      and wow, that old copy of Byron’s work. Gorgeous!!

      Have you read any Paul Theroux yet? I love Railway Bazaar but all of his travel writing is so funny. I’m sure a lot of people would hate it – because he’s not a gaga tourist. He hates so many places!! He sneers at entire nations and their ridiculous and horrible railway lines, and other things. He has a bit on decor in Mexico (I can’t remember which book that’s from) that is brutal. But boy, the man can write. And it’s actually refreshing to read travel writing that has some bite.

      • Jaquandor says:

        Thanks! Sorry, I missed your reply…but I have read some Theroux (not much) and I notice the same thing you did! I love travel writing for the usual sense of “wonder” at our amazing world, but Theroux doesn’t seem to like it much at all, sometimes. It’s like he wound up doing travel writing in the same way that some people wake up at age 45 and say, “Wow, I guess I’m a supermarket meat manager”.

  2. Irene Gillooly says:

    A latecomer to your blog, I am thoroughly enjoying your writing. My great-grandmother was a great admirer of Lord Byron’s writing – a fact that in my youth I found difficult to reconcile with her persona of upright rectitude. Here is a version of that lyric I think she would have loved, now that I am a tad older and not so wide-eyed at the contradictions of my elders.
    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=FFNu47XR2KE

    • sheila says:

      // a fact that in my youth I found difficult to reconcile with her persona of upright rectitude. //

      Irene – ha, that is so wonderful!!

    • sheila says:

      Oh, and yes – Joan Baez’s Go No More a-Roving – my parents had that album, and we listened to it all the time. Beautiful.

  3. erica david says:

    Sheila! Such a treat. I love the juxtaposed quotes. And re your comment about how Byronic is still in the lingo, not sure if you’re a Wodehouse fan, but amusing description of Esmond Haddocck in The Mating Season: “He was a fine, upstanding – sitting at the moment, of course, but you know what I mean – broad-shouldered bozo of about thirty, with one of those faces which I believe , though I should have to check up with Jeeves, are known as Byronic. He looked like a combination of a poet and an all-in wrestler.”

    • sheila says:

      erica – // He was a fine, upstanding – sitting at the moment, of course, but you know what I mean //

      oh my God hilarious.

  4. Patrizia says:

    Byron was my teenage crush. All my friends were obsessing about the Beatles & the Rolling Stones. MY heart belonged to Byron.

    Oddly, I don’t like most of his poetry. 😀 His letters are pretty great, though. If you ever want to do a deep dive into his life, I recommend Leslie Marchand’s three-volume biography.

    (I stumbled across yr blog the other day when I was searching for Truman Capote ephemera. You write so well & on such interesting topics! Truly, a joy to read.)

    • sheila says:

      Patrizia – I’m not a big fan of his poetry either but the letters of his I’ve read are fascinating and beautiful – it seems like he was totally aware of what was happening with him at every single moment of every single day.

      I love that he was your crush! Thanks for the recommendation on the biography! I actually have not read a bio of him – which seems odd. It’s like everything I know about him is basically just gossip and anecdotes passed down from his friends/enemies across the centuries.

      Thank you so much for reading and commenting! I appreciate it so much!

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